There’s a lot of family legacies steeped in the history of American bourbon. Two families behind two of the biggest names in the game are the minds behind Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam.
Husband and wife Bill Samuels Senior and Margie Samuels started Maker’s Mark in 1953 when they acquired the Burk’s Distillery and made it their own. The Maker’s Mark company and Samuels family have been delivering high-quality and consistent bourbon since Bill and Margie started what would become a legacy that year.
Jim Beam is another American staple on the bourbon scene. This brand is a powerhouse company that has been delivering high-volume bourbon around the world since America began taking shape as its own country. Jim Beam has a personal place in my heart, as it was the first bourbon I tried in a cocktail and enjoyed. It became my ‘gateway’ whiskey, you could say. Jim Beam is the reason I became a whiskey enthusiast!
But I digress; it seemed only appropriate to compare these two American staples in their history, their process, and their tasting notes.
Both bourbons have rich American histories with timelines that at times run parallel! So let’s talk about the history of each distillery and what each of these two bourbons has to offer.
The Maker’s Mark Family and History
As I touched on earlier, Bill Samuels Senior founded Maker’s Mark with his wife Margie in 1953 in the famous Bardstown, Kentucky. The couple purchased the Burk’s Distillery for their new project, which had been in operation since 1889.
They also purchased the historic tanks made of cypress for the fermentation process. The cypress won’t impart any flavor on the mash and is difficult to come by these days. But we’ll discuss the Maker’s Mark process more a little later!
The beginning of Makers began with Bill Samuels when he started working with his family’s mash bill to make his own distinct bourbon. He was working off a 170-year-old family recipe; he believed himself to be the fourth-generation distiller.
Bill also believed that his family’s recipe produced a bourbon that was too harsh, and even though he used the recipe as a starting point, he always intended to make the bourbon more his own. He wanted something soft, smooth, and nuanced.
As we now know, Samuels ended up succeeding in creating his own version of his family’s bourbon that was softer than the former recipe. He even sped up the experimentation process by using bread instead of taking the time to ferment wheat, which also inspired him to choose different grains than his family originally used entirely! That distinction made his bourbon much softer than the former recipe had produced, mission: accomplished!
The next step for Maker’s Mark and the Samuels, was design, which Bill handed off entirely to his wife. Margie was inspired by the “maker’s marks” that she saw pewter whitesmiths putting on their favorite or most elegant work. (Pewter whitesmiths are people who work with pewter to create tools.
Other whitesmiths work with various other metals.) This inspiration is also why Margie chose to name her husband’s new bourbon Maker’s Mark. The name and the bottle were both assigned then and there to be the best.
The Maker’s Mark Process
Maker’s describes their aging process on their website, saying, “Maker’s tells us when it’s ready, and not the other way around. Unlike most distillers, Maker’s Mark isn’t satisfied simply setting a clock. That’s why we age to taste, not time. It usually takes between six to seven years for the whisky to be ready.” Let’s take a closer look at the nuts and bolts of this process, though; it’s very interesting!
The Maker’s Mark bottle has a short, informative bio on the label and says that the tasting profile which Bill Samuels Senior wanted to create was soft, creamy, and full-bodied.
As I said earlier, Samuels Senior attained that tasting profile by using different wheat than his family had. He relied on red winter wheat in his mash bill rather than the popular choice of distiller’s rye. Samuels Senior noticed that rye could make the whiskey spicy and sharp, two things that he was trying to avoid for this bourbon.
So much of this bourbon has to do with the rich family history, and the yeast is no different. Every single Maker’s Mark (including the other variations) begins with the same yeast strain that’s an impressive 150 years old. This maintains a level of consistency in the product, and let’s face it: it’s just plain cool!
Maker’s Mark is fortunate to have a limestone watershed right at the distillery. Therefore, all the water they use for the bourbons is filtered naturally through limestone in the distillery’s own personal watershed. Pretty cool!
Just like what Jim Beam uses, this limestone water is packed with two chemicals that contribute to making a super sour mash: pure calcium and magnesium. Those two chemicals work together to create an environment that their 150-year-old yeast can grow and thrive in.
While all of this is going on, Maker’s Mark is “seasoning” their virgin American oak barrels for at least nine months. The term “seasoning” simply means that they are airing out their barrels in order to remove bitter-causing tannins that occur in young wood.
Those tannins can affect the flavor of the whiskey and make it bitter as it ages. Once the wood is no longer bitter, it’s charred three times and is finally ready to be filled with whiskey.
Now, it’s time to distill that sour mash. Maker’s Mark double-distills in copper stills and then fills their beautiful charred, virgin American oak barrels with their bourbon. They place these barrels on the top level of their rack house and hand-rotate each for optimal exposure to the wood.
Each barrel spends at least three summers in the top level of the Maker’s Mark rack house. The heat of those Kentucky summers causes the whiskey to expand and permeate the wood of the barrels, attaining the brown or amber colors in bourbon, and more importantly: securing the caramelized and vanilla flavors we love in bourbon!
The barrels are only removed from their place at the top tier of the rack house once the Maker’s Mark tasting panel is satisfied that the bourbon is ready to be transferred to a cooler location. Once the tasting panel gives its stamp of approval, the barrels are moved to a cooler area of the warehouse, which slows the aging process.
The Maker’s Mark Bottle
Margie’s design for Maker’s Mark is one of the most recognizable bottles and label designs in whiskey history. What’s even cooler is that everything that Margie placed on that bottle has a distinct purpose for being there.
First, the family name. The ‘S’ on the bottle stands for Samuels. (Maker’s Mark is still owned by Bill and Margie’s son, Bill Samuels Junior.)
And more about the family. The Roman numeral represents Bill Samuels’ as the fourth-generation distiller in his family. Today we now know that Bill Samuels Senior was actually the six-generation distiller of his family. His son discovered this sometime recently. But Margie’s design was iconic by then, so the company left the Roman numeral as is.
The star is for the farm where the family lived in Bardstown, Kentucky. Yes, the Bardstown where bourbon was born. Star Hill Farm was the name.
Originally cut by a 1935 Chandler and Price printing press, Margie had a unique label designed for Maker’s Mark as well. Even as the company expanded recently with more bourbons available, the original Maker’s Mark is the only bottle that still has this iconic label. Fun fact: when the 1935 Chandler and Price printing press broke, Maker’s had a replica and continues to use the replica today!
But honestly, what’s more, iconic than the red wax on a Maker’s Mark bottleneck? Margie chose that too, taking her inspiration from 19th-century cognac bottles she loved so much. (She also used those bottle shapes to design the Maker’s Mark bottle.)
The story goes that Margie hand-dipped the very first Maker’s Mark bottle in her home-fryer for what would become the signature wax seal and that her fried chicken never tasted the same!
Maker’s Mark Specs
- 45% alc./vol.
- 90 proof
- Aged: at least three years but up to seven
Maker’s Mark Tasting Notes
Time to get to the good stuff: what Maker’s Mark actually tastes like!
The nose starts off with a lot of salty caramel flavors. I also get the subtle hints of oak from the charred, virgin American barrels that this whiskey is aged in. I love when the wood comes through on the nose, so this is very exciting for me!
On my first sip, the bourbon is very smooth, with all those caramel notes coming in full force. Vanilla is apparent now, and the body is very creamy and soft. The palate is overall softer than the nose, with a really enjoyable round texture. Where Jim Beam is spicy and sharp, Maker’s is soft and round.
The finish of this bourbon is just as soft and smooth as the palate. There is absolutely no burn in this bourbon at any point in the tasting process. Bill Samuels Senior definitely achieved his goal to make a soft, smooth, and creamy bourbon!
Maker’s Mark has always been a trendsetter, so it makes sense that Maker’s Mark is the epitome of what most people think of when they think of what a bourbon tastes like or should taste like. Because when many of us think of bourbon, we think of this nose, this palate, and this finish.
Of course, there is a wide variety of different tasting profiles that exist for bourbons. The flavors all depend on the mash bill and the aging process, even the water used.
But bourbon overall has a long-lived reputation of being the softer, smoother, and rounder whiskey, with tobacco, vanilla, and caramel notes, amongst others. Maker’s Mark delivers on all of those tasting notes whether you like it or not.
The Jim Beam Family and History
Jim Beam, like Maker’s Mark, has a rich history in American culture. The Boehm family immigrated to America in 1740. Their name was changed to Beam less than fifty years after moving to America, and about the same time, the family moved to Kentucky to grow corn. The move was due to the government offering incentives for citizens to move west and grow corn. Jacob Beam, the head of the Beam family at the time, took his family and did just that. It was 1788.
Immigrants from all over the world were already utilizing American climate and agriculture to distill their traditional whiskies. Jacob was no different. He used the corn he was growing to distill a softer whiskey, a bourbon.
Jacob began bottling and selling his bourbon by 1795, three years after Kentucky became recognized as a state! At that time, he called it Old Jake Beam Sour Mash, and despite the competitive and bourbon-saturated market, it was extremely popular.
The Jim Beam Process
The Jim Beam distilling process starts with the family’s secret recipe. The mash is a mix of corn, rye, and malted barley. That mash is put into a 10,000-gallon cooker where something called a “setback” is added. A “setback” is an amount of mash used from the last distillation.
But why use old mash? Well, this addition contributes to ensuring consistency in each Jim Beam bottle. It also transforms the current mash into “sour mash.” A “sour mash” is a fermented mash. So when I say that introducing the older mash to the newer mash makes the product a “sour mash,” I mean to say it begins the fermentation process.
Just one of the reasons why Kentucky is known for excellent bourbon is the water quality. The state sits on a completely naturally occurring limestone shelf.
That limestone acts as a natural filter, creating iron-free, calcium-rich water. How does that affect the bourbon? Water that is calcium-rich helps create a healthy environment for yeast to grow in. It also means that the bourbon itself is starting from the purest of products: limestone-filtered water.
The sour mash is cooked and then transferred to the fermenter. The fermenter cools the mash to 60–70°F before yeast is added to do what yeast does best! But wait, what does yeast do best? It eats the sugars and creates alcohol with the byproduct from eating it. (Yes, a sort of yeast fart.)
And Jim Beam doesn’t use just any yeast for their bourbon. It is, in fact, the same strain Jim Beam has been using since the end of Prohibition in 1933.
This yeast strain is the most closely guarded secret of the Jim Beam family and distillery. In fact, the website boasts that Jim Beam himself would insist on taking a portion of that old yeast home with him on the weekends for “safekeeping.” Legend has it that Jim Beam’s great-grandson still upholds that same tradition today, eighty-five years later.
After the fermentation process, the product is referred to as “distiller’s beer” because it looks, smells, and tastes just like a beer, not a whiskey at all. But that product is immediately transferred to a column still, where it is heated. The heat makes the alcohol in the “distiller’s beer” into vapor, which separates it from the rest of the ingredients.
That vapor turns back into a liquid and is transferred to be double-distilled in a still referred to as a “doubler” but is very similar to a pot still. Fun fact: when the vapor becomes liquid in the first distillation process, it’s called “low wine,” but when the vapor becomes liquid in the second distillation process, it’s called “high wine.”
Per bourbon requirements, Jim Beam uses charred virgin American white oak barrels to age their bourbon. They call the char they set to achieve “alligator char” because they are looking for that look of a gator’s skin on the inside of their barrels before the whiskey goes in.
That “alligator char” helps caramelize the sugars that are already inside the wood, which creates a beautiful, rich, and round flavor without bitter tannins corrupting the whiskey’s taste.
The barrels are filled and transferred to one of the Jim Beam hilltop rack houses to age. (A rack house is a large warehouse where whiskey barrels are stored on racks as the whiskey ages.) Now, Jim Beam relies on some more of the natural Kentucky gifts for bourbon making. This time it isn’t the water; this time, it’s the climate.
The heat of the summers expands and contracts the wood of each barrel, which makes the bourbon seep in and out of the wood, pulling out all those yummy caramelized sugars we talked about earlier, along with American oak flavors and finally, the amber and golden-brown coloring you get from the charred wood.
Jim Beam allows their bourbons to age four years before bottling.
Jim Beam Specs
- 40% alc./vol.
- 80 Proof
- Aged four years
The Jim Beam Bottle
The Jim Beam bottle is so iconic; it’s often subtly replicated to sell lesser whiskies.
The bottle, from top to bottle, is mostly black and white. The cap is a screw top, black and sleek, with engraved glass on the neck. The overall shape is rectangular, with the neck protruding out, making it easy to carry by the neck.
The label is white with the iconic, strong black font with gold detailing shadowing the letters. “Jim Beam” across the top. Smaller, above “Jim Beam” reads “The World’s No. 1 Bourbon Whiskey” in gold font. A black outline surrounds the label on top and bottom.
Beneath the words “Jim Beam” is a picture of a red wax seal, not dissimilar from the Maker’s Mark wax seal, aside from it not truly being wax. The stamp in this is a “B” with “Jim Beam since 1795” around the “B.” This is Jim Beam’s own maker’s mark, so to say. (More on a maker’s mark when we get to Maker’s Mark!)
Behind the picture of a wax seal is Kentucky countryside in blacks and grays. It’s a simple sketch but a lovely tribute to the land of corn, limestone-filtered water, and bourbon.
Beneath all that is the words “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey” in strong black font once again with gold shadows and gold details around the word “Whiskey.” And finally, beneath that, near the only red font on the bottle, is James B. Beam’s signature and in fine gold print “None Genuine Without My Signature.”
The bottle shape fits easily in a well and on a bar shelf. The neck makes it easy to handle as both a home and professional bartender too. The stark white label with strong black and gold font draws your eyes in naturally. You will see this concept imitated often due to the massive success of the Jim Beam distillery.
Jim Beam Tasting Notes
On the nose, Jim Beam is a bit hot. Beneath that heat is a lovely note of dried apricot and a touch of caramel from the oak.
The heat comes through on the palate too, and I personally always get that dried apricot, whether it’s on the nose, palate, or finish. The bourbon is a little soft before it becomes spicy and sharp.
The finish for me is once again that dried apricot, but it is followed by a nice, subtle, charred oak. I taste that gator skin!
Maker’s Mark Pros and Cons
- Good for sipping
- Great for mixing
- Reasonable price for the quality (I paid $33.99 in Rhode Island)
- For the same price, you can support smaller distilleries
- It could be too soft for some
- Will not do well with an ice cube, which many prefer
Jim Beam Pros and Cons
- You can’t beat that price! (I paid $18.99 in Rhode Island)
- Mixes great in a shaken cocktail
- Easy to shoot
- Very distinct Jim Beam flavor that overtakes cocktails
- Not a sipping whiskey
Mixing with Maker’s Mark vs. Jim Beam
But of course, I had to make an Old Fashioned with each whiskey to really see how they did with other ingredients. I like using an Old Fashioned in this ‘experiment’ because it’s a cocktail where the whiskey is meant to pop, so if it’s a good mixing whiskey, this is where we will see it.
The Jim Beam Old Fashioned
Both made a yummy Old Fashioned. The Jim Beam still screamed dried apricot and other dried berries to me now. While it was a good Old Fashioned, it was very obviously a Jim Beam Old Fashioned. And that’s just not what everyone wants when they order an Old Fashioned.
The Maker’s Mark Old Fashioned
The Maker’s Mark Old Fashioned, on the other hand, was more of an Old Fashioned. This was a cocktail where the wood of the aging popped; the round, smooth texture of the bourbon worked well with the bitters and sugar too. All in all, this is what an Old Fashioned should taste like.
Comparable Whiskies to Maker’s Mark
- Buffalo Trace. It’s hard to mention Maker’s Mark without yet another American bourbon staple: Buffalo Trace. Buffalo Trace is delicious on its own, with a rock, or mixed. It is smooth and round and very similar to Maker’s Mark when it comes to craft and excellence. Price-wise, the Buffalo Trace is also in the mid-thirty dollar range.
- Woodford Reserve makes fabulous bourbon. Their Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a wonderful sipping or mixing whiskey. Like Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace, it really can do anything. Cost-wise, it can be closer to forty dollars but it’s worth every penny!
- Old Forester is another classic Kentucky bourbon and boasts to be the oldest bourbon sold in America with sealed bottles! If you’re looking for another rich, American bourbon, look no further. A bottle of Old Forester will run you about sixty dollars though, so nearly twice as much as Maker’s Mark.
Comparable Whiskies to Jim Beam
- Evan Williams makes a bourbon that is very similar to Jim Beam tasting-wise, but far as price goes, it rings in about ten dollars more than Jim Beam. The flavor profile of Evan Williams doesn’t have that dried berry or apricot flavor but is very vanilla and caramel forward. Both bourbons are great for mixing with.
- Four Roses Yellow Label is almost ten dollars more than Jim Beam, but less fruit-forward and more of a traditional bourbon in flavor. This is easily sipped on and mixed with, and great to shoot! Definitely worth the extra dollars if you want to try something new!
- Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon is comparable in that it is an inexpensive whiskey, ringing in around the same price as Jim Beam: under twenty dollars! This is an easily drinkable, mixable, and sippable bourbon. I highly recommend it!
Answer: I believe they each have a role to fill. I’d shoot or sip both, but I wouldn’t sip on a Jim Beam. Both mix well, but Maker’s Mark shines more in a cocktail meant for the bourbon to pop, whereas Jim Beam adds a sense of fruitiness that I don’t particularly care for myself.
Answer: It depends on what you’re using the bourbon for. If it’s to sip, yes. If you’re trying to batch out a bourbon-based drink for a party, then I’d use Jim Beam. If it’s to make yourself a nightly Manhattan, I’d also say Maker’s Mark is worth spending more money.
Answer: As someone who doesn’t work for either company, the best answer I can give is that Jim Beam probably produces a lot more of the Jim Beam bourbon than Maker’s Mark does. This allows them to cut what they charge per bottle because they’re able to sell so many more bottles.
Answer: Twist! The same company that owns Maker’s Mark and many others: Beam Suntory is the parent company.
It’s hard for me to find a whiskey I don’t like, and it’s even more difficult for me to say I don’t care for a certain bourbon. I love the gentle nuances of every whiskey I have the privilege to try, and I like sitting down to think about where that whiskey belongs in my repertoire.
For me, Jim Beam happens to be a whiskey that I’d rather mix with. I’d like to drink it shaken in a Whiskey Sour rather than stirred in a Manhattan. Does that make Jim Beam less of a bourbon than Maker’s Mark? Absolutely not. It just means it has a different place in my heart and on a menu.
Maker’s Mark, on the other hand, I believe belongs more as a sipping whiskey, or in a cocktail like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned, where the bourbon can really shine. I’d gladly take shots of either the Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam though, they both go down easy!
But once again, I am forced to choose between the bourbon that made me love bourbon and a bourbon I love today. In the end, I have to say that I prefer Maker’s Mark because I believe it is overall a more versatile bourbon than Jim Beam. Sip it, shoot it, mix with it; the product will be as delicious as the bourbon.